"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Synapse JANUARY/FEBRUARY 1979 - by Colin Gardner
Q: ARE WE NOT MEN? A: WE ARE DEVO!
Devo are essentially collage artists, both in terms of their philosophy of de-evolution and their music. Like Dada they take pre-existing material and mould it together in strange juxtapositions producing an end result that is more than the sum of its parts. Thus clichés can be synthesises into interesting statements, or occasionally merely more cliché.
"Are we not men?" for example, is taken from The Island Of Dr. Moreau, but is given new life by combining it with a reversal of Darwinist theory of evolution which contends that man has evolved too far and degenerated. Yet Devo also introduce an element of egalitarianism insofar as "We are all Devo", and presumably spuds also - united as one in our common pinhead existence.
This is a very winning thesis for our current times, providing a simply understood alternative, a collective consciousness, and a pseudo-scientific logic for attacking the status quo. Moreover, the music is extremely accessible, rooted firmly in the rudiments of rock 'n' roll, with enough off-beat electronics and minimal production values to appeal to the discerning and faddist avant garde.
Yet Devo's approach has certain intrinsic problems. As in any creative endeavour whereby one criticises the status quo by exaggerating its worst abuses, the more effectively to underline its irrationalities, one tends to fall into the trap of using those same abuses to further one's cause. Thus Devo's use of cliché, repetition ("We must repeat, D.E.V.O.") and insistence on ideology, can be read as dogmatic - a wonderfully convenient doctrine for Devo clones to adopt as they dress up in their devo uniforms and Booji Boy sunglasses: Devo as another consumable fad! Similarly, the need for an audience has led the group to abandon their home-made label for the affluent comfort of Warner brothers, twenty-four tracks, and Brian Eno as producer. The end result is a slicker, more polished product, which deviates from the original idea of crudely minimal electronics.
The music itself is both derivative and simplistic, yet somehow exciting, original and fresh: like a Man Ray exhibit, although more musically akin to Tuli Kupferberg and The Fugs. Its main characteristic is a tendency to make the listener want to pogo in robot-like jerky rhythms. Devo borrow from a wide variety of sources, yet create a sound that is undeniably their own, even without the enhancing props contained in their live shows. Thus their version of The Stones' Satisfaction bears more resemblance to old Jamaican ska singles from the early-'60s than to R & B. The fuzz guitar riff dominance has gone, replaced by a grumbling bass and staccato percussion, and when at the end we finally get our fuzz guitar, it's played on a synthesizer.
Come back Jonee extends the folklore of J.B. Goode by killing him off completely. Chugging guitars join a simplistic Farfisa organ, Chuck Berry riffs, and a grisly out-of-tune chorus yelling "Jonee! Jonee!" as we hear that: "Jonee jumped in his Datsun, Drove out on the expressway, Went head-on into a semi-, His guitar's all that's left now."
Praying Hands features influences from surfing instrumentals (Wipe Out) to The Beach Boys' acid experiments (Smiley Smile), while Uncontrollable Urge has marked elements of The Pretty Things, The Who and Tom Petty. The screaming guitar, crashing cymbals and gorilla grunts of Too Much Paranoias recall King Crimson's 21st Century Schizoid Man. The one major Devo hallmark is Mark Mothersbaugh's voice, which sounds at times like Bryan Ferry flipping out, yet contains great conviction. It has to with lines like, "I think I've got a Big Mac attack."
Only Jocko Homo, Shrivel Up and Mongoloid make overt references to de-evolution. The latter is Jerry Casale's ode to the modern nine-to-fiver, which owes a great debt to The Kinks' Well Respected Man, yet carries the novel overtone that "Mr. Status Quo" is also mongoloid: "one chromosome too many." Shrivel Up is an uncharacteristically moody piece, reminiscent of those edgy Twilight Zone TV soundtracks. Once again Devo refer back to an old idea, in this case that Jack Ripper's theories of defluidation in Dr. Strangelove were erroneous. It wasn't the Reds who were robbing us of our vital bodily fluids - it's in the natural order of things.
Jocko Homo, the band's anthem, is perhaps their most original piece. Deceptively simple in its counterpointed ascending and descending riffs, it succeeds on its own terms without resort to musical clichés or electronic gimmicks.
The use of the synthesizer is understated rather than overt, employed to reinforce a melody line more often than for experimental atonal counterpoints. Thus Eno plays one of his rhythmic interludes on Gut Feeling, very reminiscent of his early Roxy Music contributions. Space Junk, an amusing report on debris falling to earth from outer space, and Too Much Paranoias both use electronics as sound effects, usually very percussively.
Devo are an accessible force - Toni Basil's use of their music in her Follies Bizarre is proof of that - and they continue to grow. In fact, their current singles, not on the album, Blockheads and Machine Man, are far more interesting electronic experiments than anything on Are We Not Men? It remains to be seen how far Eno has affected their evolution - or rather de-evolution.